Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 1/11/13
OK, I often make very bold statements, and this one is no different from the rest.The Cleveland Browns are a few off-season moves from returning to playoff contention, an accomplishment their fans have been dying to witness since the team’s last playoff appearance in 2007. Following their return in 1999 after the late Art Modell relocated the original Browns to Baltimore (now Ravens), the Browns have appeared only once in the post-season, where they lost to the Steelers 36-33. They were close in 2007 finishing the season 10-6, their best finish since their re-debut was snubbed due to a tiebreaker with the Tennessee Titans. In 2009, the Browns fired GM Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel, who most recently coached in Kansas City.That move was follow by the hiring of coaching legend Mike Holmgren as team president, and Tom Heckert as the new GM. It would mark the first time that Holmgren held a front office position, while Heckert is no stranger to the duties of being a GM, as he slowly built a solid foundation for Andy Reid in Philadelphia before exiting for Cleveland. Coincidentally, while in Philadelphia he worked under then team president Joe Banner Following three dismal seasons where the team finished a combined record of 14-34, then Browns owner Randy Lerner sold the team to renowned businessman Jimmy Haslam. Haslam then quickly named Eagles team President Joe Banner the new team CEO, to replace Holmgren next season. After another dismal season with the team finishing 5-11, the Browns fired head coach Pat Shurmur, whose success had mirrored that of former head coach Eric Mangini. Unlike Mangini, Shurmur had no prior experience as a head coach, but did have success in St. Louis as an offensive coordinator.  Under Shurmur, the Browns finished a combined 9-23, which explains the Browns' fan base calling for his termination as head coach. The Browns failed to find success in 2011 after drafting the weak-armed Colt McCoy, who was a third-round draft pick many in Cleveland coined "the next franchise QB," only to see the team falter badly with him at the helm.  The offensive line played equally horrible as the right side of the offensive line provided very little protection for McCoy, and the Browns' receiving corps dropped too many passes during the season. The roster changes made before last season season saw the Browns draft quarterback Brandon Weeden out of Oklahoma State after he led the Cowboys to a 12-1 record and Big 12 title. Weeden has a strong arm, but his accuracy continues to be questioned.  The offensive line saw immediate improvements in pass protection due to the drafting of starter Mitchell Schwartz, giving Weeden time to open up the passing game and opened lanes for their top 1st round selection in 2012, running back Trent Richardson out of Alabama University. Richardson led Alabama to the national championship in 2011, helping the Tide add yet another title to the university’s history book. The speculation for next season is growing rampant in Cleveland, where some fans already feel the Browns could be playoff bound after showing much promise this season, despite finishing 5-11.  Majority of the losses occurred in close finishes, which is a major reason for playoff optimism next season. Here's where the changes have to be made if the Browns are to compete at a higher level: The first change was the termination of head coach Pat Shurmur, who's predictable play calling was a key reason for the dismal 9-23 record during his time as head coach. Next, a decision has to be made for who will replace GM Tom Heckert, but such discussions have yet to begin and won’t be made until the team approaches the Draft. However, it’s important to note the saga where the Browns placed Eric Mangini before hiring a GM, who normally handles hiring a new head coach. The Browns are currently seeking out a new head coach, and to date have not hired a GM to replace Heckert (Déjà vu?). The offense improved its play last season, but the defense was rather lack luster. The defensive line was hampered by a near season-ending injury to former 1st round pick (2011) defensive tackle Phil Taylor and linebacker Scott Fujita's bounty suspension.  These circumstances led to the eventual start of Nevada rookie James-Michael Johnson, who in 10 games only managed a combined 36 tackles, before a knee injury ended his season. The play of the secondary was equally horrible last season, and even the return of Joe Haden didn’t improve their inability to defend against opposing pass games. While Buster Skrine put up an impressive 85 tackles, special teams included, he didn’t get a single pick in the secondary and was often lit up on deep routes. It is widely rumored the Browns will draft either linebacker Monte Te'o out of Notre Dame, or linebacker Jarvis James out of Georgia to help solidify the interior third of its defense. While this would be an excellent addition, both front lines need help. The offensive line while playing well lacks interior depth and any injuries would bring problems to the next season’s offensive flow. The defensive line failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks off the bookends, while giving up big gains on the ground not due to the workhorse play from the interior linemen, who seemed to be the only reason the Browns could fill the gaps. The Browns have good depth over the heart of the defense, which makes me wonder whether or not they should draft Te'o or James as linebackers, or to convert the one they draft to a defensive end, giving the defensive line better speed off the corners. It's a risky gamble, but it also could work too, ala Jevon Kearse for example. The Browns gave up their 2nd round pick for the upcoming Draft, by selecting wide receiver Josh Gordan out of Baylor in last season's Supplemental Draft. Gordon slowly became the go-to receiver the Browns had been sorely missing, and was well worth the team's 2nd round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Rounds 3-7 should see selections to improve defensive depth and the same along the interior offensive line. The Browns should also be very active under Haslam and Banner in adding veteran free agents to better the team's chances at success. They also need to work in the off-season with Weeden to improve his accuracy and mechanical breakdowns both in and out of the pocket. If the Browns can successfully make these changes, they will go from an AFC afterthought to being circled on every opposing team’s calendar and be taken far more seriously next season. Also, such improvement will give the Browns a fair shot at the same success the Colts found last season. It has been a very painful 13 years for the Browns' fan base, but the anticipation continues to mount for their 2nd post season appearance since 1999. Haslam is not the type of owner to accept defeat, just like the heralded and loyal Cleveland Browns' fan base.
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